It was a day. A sunny one. But then again, all days were sunny in this hellhole of a place. It never rained, the sun just shone on and on forever. It was hot, and the heat waves emanating from the ground could literally be seen in the shimmering wave of air. The ground was filled with gigantic cracks that ran across it like scars on a face. There were crevasses, where the ground split open so deeply that you could not see the bottom. Welcome to Timbuktu, Mali.
Andrew Mill stared out of the window in the hotel he was staying at. The hotel was on the outskirts of the city, so in the distance he could see the encroaching Sahara Desert, with its cacti, tumbleweeds and camels. Below, the marketplace was a bustling activity, thriving on the yells of traders shouting out their goods, trying to outdo their competitors.
Mill was a fit man, his hair neatly cut, not touching his ears. His eyes were like hawks’ and they penetrated into anyone who met their gaze. He wore a thin shirt and trousers, which helped with the heat. His arms were muscular, and his veins stood out like little canals in the white expanse that was his skin. He wore an air of impatience about him.
Mill looked at his watch. Any minute now, his target would appear. He shrugged his shoulders and got ready. To his right was the library that was home to thousands of ancient, valuable scrolls from the Quran and also on various topics of philosophy, art, medicine, and science. It was this that the SIF had sent him to protect.
The SIF was, after all, not a very well-known organization, but that only helped its members. It was the sister of MI6, taking spies who had failed and training them to become harder, tougher, stronger in every aspect. The Government had sanctioned the SIF, but it was under close scrutiny for its failure to prevent a slew of mass shootings that had happened in Paris. MI6 was furious.
And so Odyssey had called for him in the wee hours of morning two days ago. Once he had arrived at SIF headquarters he was immediately shoved towards Odyssey’s office.
“Ah! Agent Omnibus. Pleased to meet you.” Odyssey said. “We have an urgent case that requires our best agent, and I have decided to send you.” Mill felt a glower of pride at this, but Odyssey continued, “Not least because our top ten agents are current overseas on missions.”
Odyssey told him that they had gained information that a terrorist group was trying to steal some of the manuscripts from one of Timbuktu’s Desert Libraries, “this one specifically.” Odyssey said as he slid a picture across his desk to Mill.
“We’ve booked you a flight and a hotel. Directions will be given in this folder. A picture of the man you’re looking for is provided. No killing this time, Mill. Question him on why the terrorist group wants to steal the manuscripts.
“Bring him back alive, please, Mill?” And with that, Mill was off.
Of course, it was difficult, adjusting to the jet lag, but Mill loved it. He loved the thrill of the chase, the satisfaction at having got his man, the sweet taste of victory.
And then there was Odyssey. Mill liked him. He was the ideal man, one who was smart enough to know who to send, smart enough to make plans for his agents to execute. Mill liked that mustachioed man, even though it seemed that all he did was sit in a chair and think. He had a nice view of London, at least. Mill could see the London Eye from Odyssey’s office.
He checked his watch again. Just to be safe, he headed down into the marketplace, where he leaned against a pillar inconspicuously, pretending to be shading himself.
Mill had by now memorized the features of the face that he was supposed to find. Mill knew the hawk like nose, the slits of eyes, the putrid face from which protruded a pudgy snarl. The face had a small head. Underneath the picture was written, Chris Maxi. He had a crazy mop of brown hair on his head that stood up in some places, and lay flat in others. All in all, he looked like an experiment gone wrong.
With a face like that, it shouldn’t be hard to find, reasoned Mill as he scrutinized every face that passed by him.
Still, he kept his guard. A man in a brown coat and a hat walked by, looking furtively around. Mill tilted his head to get a better look. The hawk like nose was there. So were the eyes. It was the man! Mill raced forward and tackled him, bringing him to the ground. “I’ve got you now!” Mill exclaimed. He tore off the hat, and it…wasn’t the man? A furious innocent man yelled curses in Arabic and shook his fist at Mill.
Mill gulped. His cover was blown. He had to act now, or the terrorist would get wind of the incident. Already there was a crowd around him. The man was still yelling, his voice shrill and his face flushed. Mill could see why he had been mistaken for Maxi. The nose was the same, but the eyes had been squinting to see properly in the blinding light reflecting off the ground. The shadow cast by his hat had thrown much of his face into darkness, leading Mill to act rashly.
While Mill was still scanning the crowd and looking around for a means of escape to hide his burning cheeks, he spotted a man. He wore a T-shirt and shorts, and then, suddenly, as he turned his head to look at the crowd, he saw Mill. And Mill saw him. It was Maxi. Maxi turned and ran for it, pushing aside people as he scrambled away. As Mill plowed into the crowd, he understood. It had all been a diversion!
Maxi had sent this man ahead to confuse the secret agent he knew would be coming, and then use the ensuing commotion to nab the manuscripts unnoticed.
Behind him, he heard gunshots. They were onto him. Mill dodged a stall and grabbed the board on which a trader had displayed his goods. He held it up to protect his head from the gunshots that were ringing out. They ripped through the wood, missing his head by bare inches. Mill risked a glance behind to get a look at his pursuers. There were two of them. Both of them wielding guns. And then, just as Mill looked back, one of them pulled out a rifle from his bag.
Great, thought Mill, just what I need. He ran faster, but soon enough there was the mechanical dotting of bullets from the gun barrel. One of them got his leg and he cried out in pain. Bearing with it, Mill decided he had to get rid of them.
He spotted an alley and ducked into it, using the building as a cover. He whipped out his gun and aimed at the assassins, firing. They went down, both of them on two shots. Mill hadn’t been made a secret agent for nothing.
Mill came out of the alleyway and looked around for Maxi. There he was, making a beeline for the library’s doorway. Mill gasped in surprise and raced towards Maxi, trying to get to him before he could do any damage. Too late. Maxi had fired and killed the two library security guards. Mill shot at Maxi, but he missed.
He ran harder, chasing Maxi into the library. “Get out!” yelled Mill as he wheeled into the library’s entrance room. He spotted Maxi running up the stairway to the documents.
He screeched over to the banister, and then used it to pull himself into the stairway. He raced up the steps, but then he suddenly four shots. Four dead. He charged past the frightened people who were gathered around the bodies, and then spotted Maxi stuffing something into the bag that he carried. The glass case had been shattered and glass shards lay all over the floor. Upon seeing Maxi, Mill fired, but Maxi heard him and fled.
Mill cursed. He had been so close to getting Maxi, even if Odyssey had specifically told him not to kill Maxi. Ahead of him, Maxi smashed into a window, breaking it and leaping out. Perfect, thought Mill, I have to jump out of the window when I have a bullet wound in my leg. Just what I need.
Even so, Mill ran over to the window and looked out. He saw Maxi running on the rooftops of the houses below, making for the Sahara Desert. Mill hesitated for the slightest of seconds, and then he leapt off onto the rooftops.
Bang! Mill felt the pain of the bullet in his leg once again as he crumpled onto the rooftops. Contorting his face, he convulsed in pain and then rolled off the rooftops. He landed on some trader’s stall, who immediately swore in some unknown language and tried to punch Mill. Mill ducked it, of course, but this was no time to be involved in a fight. Maxi was getting away.
Suddenly, Mill saw a motorcycle not far off. He charged towards it, shoving the person off the bike and revving it up. He tilted his head, and there was Maxi, running along the rooftops as though hell was at his heels. Mill rode off, ignoring angrier yells in more unknown languages. Mill chased Maxi on the bike, but really, Mill was out of his depth. He didn’t know what he had to do. Maxi was getting away.
And then, out of all the possible scenarios, Mill spotted a ramp. “Move!” he shouted before speeding up and then zooming up the ramp. He felt the hot air whip his hair before he burst onto the rooftops, perfect timing, knocking down Maxi.
Mill leapt off the bike and it crashed into one of the houses. He punched Maxi, dealing a blow to his head. They tussled for a few moments, and Mill tried to get in a few punches, but the majority of them were blocked by Maxi.
Then Maxi twisted out of Mill’s grasp and tumbled off the rooftops. Mill took out this gun and fired, in vain. He swore, and then he slid off the rooftops too.
The sharp knife of pain slid through his leg again, but Mill shrugged it off. He gave chase to the escaping Maxi, trying to get a shot on him. There was once where Mill thought he had got Maxi, but all Maxi did was shout in pain and then carried on as if nothing had happened. It was clear Maxi was much tougher than Mill.
Maxi came to a dead end to the road they were running on. That didn’t stop him, however, he just headed to the wall on his right and kicked off, grabbing the tip of the wall and pulling himself off. As Maxi reached the top, he did a small salute to the approaching Mill, then pushed off to the other side.
Mill came to a halt as he came to the wall. He tried to do the same trick as Maxi, but his injury prevented him from doing so: Every time he tried it shockwaves of pain were sent up his leg.
He took a last deep breath, and then steeled himself. He was trained to be tough, no matter his failure as an MI6 agent. He shrugged his shoulders and kicked with all his might, ignoring the superb bullet wound that threatened to eat his body alive with his pain. He stretched out for the ledge, and then his fingertips grasped it. He pulled himself upwards, onto the ledge. There, he saw Maxi turning to the right, into an alleyway.
Then, to his right, there were some steps leading to the rooftops. “Not the rooftops again,” he cursed. But still, he went up them. There the rooftops led in a straight line, to the alleyway to which Maxi was heading. It was a shortcut.
He got his breath back and then started out again. He raced along the rooftops, and in a few short moments he was at the alleyway where he had seen Maxi disappear. He stared down the alleyway. And sure enough, there was Maxi, jabbering quickly into a phone, making angry gestures.
Mill hid himself behind a chimney, and then leapt towards Maxi. Maxi was too surprised to move, and so he was crushed beneath Mill. Mill pinned Maxi to the ground, pulling his hands behind his back and tearing away his gun.
Mill took the phone. The phone was dead, smashed beneath Mill’s weight. He tossed it away. He pointed Maxi’s gun at Maxi. “Talk! Who do you work for? Why did you steal the manuscripts for?” He hissed at Maxi.
Maxi shivered and then he turned as white as a ghost. He stammered, mumbling some words, but then he finally formed them into three words, “The Pallid Darkness.” Mill’s eyes hardened. “What do you mean?” he asked, shaking Maxi.
Maxi opened his mouth, but then there was a bang, and the lifeless form of Chris Maxi lay in Andrew Mill’s hands. Mill looked up. He wielded the gun, pointing it wildly at the rooftops. “Who’s there?” he yelled.
There was no answer.
Mill cursed for about the fifth time that day. He whipped out his own phone. “Hello? Yes, it’s me. Mill. Maxi’s dead. Send a plane, won’t you? What’s that? Return the manuscripts? Fine. No, he doesn’t have anything else on him, except a bag. No wallet, and I think I must have smashed the phone. Okay. I’ll take the remains and the bag. I think a sniper must have blasted his brains out. He said something, though. ‘The Pallid Darkness’. Yes, those exact words. Send a plane.” And with that, Agent Omnibus scooped up the phone and bag and closed Maxi’s eyes. “Thanks for telling me nothing,” he whispered, before leaving the body behind.
“How’s that bullet wound?” asked Odyssey as Andrew stepped into his office. Odyssey was, as always, clad in a perfect tuxedo and swiveled round in his chair.
“Fine.” replied Mill as he sat down in the armchair Odyssey indicated. “Kind of unnecessary, though. Anything reported in the news?”
“None. We did a good job of hiding the bodies, of course.” Odyssey said in the dry manner to which Mill was so accustomed. Mill smiled back. “A perfect mission, then, Mill. I must compliment you for that. Then again, there was that business of the tackled man and the motorcycle. Luckily, the public didn’t view them as connected. And as such, neither did the media.” Odyssey put his five fingertips together and tapped them together while closing his eyes. It was, Mill had realized, one of his idiosyncrasies.
“What is it now?” asked Mill. Odyssey could not have wanted to send him on a mission, so soon after tackling Maxi, unless it was connected, and therefore, the mission was not over yet.
“We’ve got news of a drug smuggler.”
“What does this have to do with ‘The Pallid Darkness’?” Mill asked again. He felt the hollow tremor in his bones as he thought of doing another mission. He did love doing it, yes, but then again, he hated it. It was a conflict between good Mill and bad Mill, forever in a struggle to take control.
Odyssey closed his eyes and sighed. “Maxi was killed by a sniper; you say?”
Mill frowned. “Don’t change the subject. You have a mission for me?”
Odyssey opened his eyes and stared at Mill, his facial expression nonchalant. “It is related, Omnibus, you just don’t understand. It is related. You have to connect the dots.” Suddenly he leant forward and placed his elbows on his desk. “Was Maxi killed by a sniper?” he repeated.
“I didn’t exactly see, but I assume it was.”
“Did you see anyone?”
“No one.” Mill replied.
Odyssey clicked his tongue and looked out of the window in his office. Mill looked at Odyssey. There were a few moments of silence, before Odyssey finally looked back. Mill had learnt a long time ago that Odyssey was not to be interrupted, so he kept his mouth shut and waited. At last, Odyssey said, “Interesting, isn’t it? Quite reminiscent of your failure? You leaning over a body; The body killed by something you never found out; You never leant who killed the body.”
“I wouldn’t say never. I still can find the killer of Maxi if you want. But for the other, it’s been too long.”
Odyssey leaned back and guffawed. “Ever the optimistic person, eh, Mill?” When Odyssey had regained his serious composure, however, he grimaced at Mill. “The man you’re tracking is one of the most dangerous criminals in the world. Not known for his skill at fighting, but instead for his wide network of smugglers all over the world.
“We’ve got news that this drug smuggler sent one of his accomplices to smuggle some drugs into America, and that he was caught. We’ve traced it back to the illegal drug smuggler. This man.” Odyssey slid a photo across to Mill.
It showed a man in a tuxedo, straightening his tie with one hand and talking into his phone with the other, leaving a building. Mill looked closer. The man had an ugly frown on his face, and his contracted eyebrows formed a kind of straight black cloud over his eyes. He had slight grizzle on his chin, and his yellow hair was combed neatly back. He seemed the very image of luxury. His perfectly cut hair, exquisitely refined face, and the expertly manicured fingernails gave the impression of a millionaire.
“The drug smuggler is…Aaron Veenox?” Mill was astounded.
“The billionaire who got lucky in the stock market? Exactly. You may have wondered how he made his fortune. He says he bet correctly on the 2001 dot com crash, but if you look carefully you’ll find that he has more money than is possible for him, even though he says he is still in the financial economy as a professional trader.
“So where could this money have come from? Simple. His profits from the drug smuggling business.
“He’s gone to ground since the 2008 financial crisis, but that doesn’t matter to most of the people in the economy business. Veenox wasn’t a formidable enemy to most of them.
“But to us he is. He’s building up an empire, Mill. A drug empire that is infinitely more evil than anything you could have dreamed of. And yet, no news except piecemeal. Little scraps of information that I’m piecing together to form suspicion. Nothing real yet.
“Based on our spies’ reports, I suspect he’s sending another shipment of drugs to Spain. To Barcelona specifically.
“We need you to stop him. Find out more evidence against Veenox, because we don’t have enough to convict him.”
“What does this have to do with Maxi?”
“Nothing at all. Just a mission, Mill. Let the similarities run a little longer, shall we?” Odyssey raised his right eyebrow, as if daring Mill to contradict him.
“Fine. You’ve got a plane for me, right? Good. What do I get on this mission?” Mill asked.
Odyssey smiled. “We’ve got a little something for you. It promises to be extremely efficient, even if it is a prototype. And a gun. Yours of course. And a car. I know how much you love them.”
Mill nodded. “That’s good. Well prepared this time, aren’t we?”
Odyssey took out a folder. “Everything you need to know about Veenox and about the man you’re supposed to find. Look out for a sallow face, please. Report to Tech.”
Mill got up. The debrief was over. “Oh yes, Andrew?” Mill looked back. He gave a questioning look. Odyssey did not disappoint. “MI6 has told me that they have their eye on you. Give me a successful mission, will you? And follow my orders, don’t go haywire like you did last time.” Mill gave a wry smile.
“Don’t worry. I won’t forget.” And with that Mill exited.
As soon as he left Odyssey’s secretary entered. She was a beautiful blonde of perhaps 20 years of age. “Are you sure you want to do this, sir?” Lauren Kahly asked. “So soon after the bullet wound?”
Odyssey shrugged it off. “He says he’s fine.”
Lauren continued, “Do you want to make him relive the past? It is painful for him, sir.”
Odyssey put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes. Then he looked up. “He wants to do it. I can’t stop him. And neither can you, Lauren. You’re not his guardian angel.”
Lauren nodded. She made her way to the door, but then suddenly she stopped. “Do you think he is afraid?”